Sankofa: Engineered Strides in Curing HIV

To this day, the AIDS epidemic that flared up in the 1980s is considered Gay History 101. It’s a deeply sobering part of our community’s history that saw some of our older members attending multiple funerals a week, being afraid to hold hands for fear of catching the then-unnamed-and-unknown disease, and witnessing fearful nurses who refused to deliver meals to HIV+/AIDS patients. Medical and scientific knowledge and treatments have come a long way since then, but still a vaccine or cure eludes us — but recent developments have brought us one glorious step closer.
In September 2017, scientists from the National Institutes of Health shared their discovery of a special, engineered antibody capable of binding to three vital sites of the HIV virus. The antibody can attack 99 percent of HIV strains, a similar feat that occurs in 1 percent of HIV patients. What makes the virus so difficult to cure and “pin down” is that it’s constantly mutating, which allows it to break through the barrier created by HIV antibodies.
However, a unique quality in the new antibody is that it uses a three-pronged attack on the microscopic battlefield inside the human body. Even if the virus managed to overcome one front through a new mutation, there would still be two more gatekeepers for it to deal with. And because the new antibody is a single combination of three other antibodies, it’s hoped that it will be approved by the Federal Drug Administration sooner, and that it can be used as a vaccine as well as a treatment. With successful preliminary testing on monkeys over, human trials should start this year.
While breakthrough treatments, PrEP, and combination therapy have slowed the spread of HIV and made the virus less of a death sentence, they have also contributed (albeit inadvertently) to a sense of forgetfulness and even unappreciation. Our community must recall the fact that early treatments and medications were either physically harmful, abjectly ineffective, or both. The HIV treatment knowledge and technology we have today were not available back in the 80s, meaning that many gay men were essentially test subjects, ones who suffered from the many physically, emotionally, and mentally debilitating effects of HIV.
This isn’t to suggest that HIV is no longer a devastating and life-changing diagnosis; just that all of us in the community (as well as our allies) have to make an effort to remember and continue to support our long-term survivors as well as the memories they carry of their peers. While it most certainly takes courage to be open about your sexuality, there’s no denying that it takes even more bravery to be open about being HIV positive. There are certainly those who have educated themselves about what it means to be undetectable/untransmittable, but there are also individuals who still shame the HIV positive.
“Sankofa” is a word from Ghana’s Twi language, a dialect spoken by the Akan people, that translates to “go back and get it.” It’s symbolized by a bird facing backward to take an egg from its back. The core concept of sankofa is that we must go back and retrieve the wisdom and knowledge of the past and bring it with us into the present as well as the future and use it to manifest positive change.
We cannot allow ourselves to forget our gay history or the people, events, and breakthroughs that brought us where we are today. Even if the new antibody works and HIV is cured and a vaccine for AIDS is created, there’s no telling what “next big thing” lurks around the corner. But by carrying the stories and sense of community of our rainbow ancestors with us into our future, we are sure to be lifted and soar, come what may.